What is Education?

I have come under fire a little for my decision to homeschool Hat. From friends, mostly: friends with kids who articulate concern over my choice because, they say, Hat will miss out ”socially”.

I appreciate what they mean. To a point. But question how genuine their concern is: are they really worried Hat’s life will be socially compromised (no children’s birthday parties where we are, no ballet lessons, no tennis coaching)? Or do they object to somebody breaking the conventional mould, somebody not sending their child to school? Or does my decision – amongst those friends with children Hat’s age at boarding school – conjure an uncomfortable guilt? It doesn’t matter. As Husband, who is irritatingly Font of all Knowledge but thankfully also Font of Wisdom, notes: people are going to criticise whatever decision parents make vis a vis choices of education for their children.

But to my own. We have moved to an Outpost 500 miles from where we used to live. And where Hat used to go to school. There are no suitable schools where we are now. When we made the decision to move, I put the question of ”school” to each of my children. The eldest two vetoed Homeschool.  Partly because – at almost 16 and 13 – frienships with their peer groups are established and important. Partly because they were concerned about their mother, who can’t add up the contents of shopping basket (not even here in Outpost), teaching them IGCSE Maths. But Hat, who was adamant she didn’t want to go to boarding school for a number of fairly sound reasons, including the fact she would only see her mother once a month and her father once a term, opted for home school.

We researched various choices of school and dismissed several on assorted grounds: too ‘Christian’ (we live in a community of myriad religions – Christian, Muslim, Hindu – it seemed appropriate that ‘school’ reflect this); too expensive; too narrow in scope, too devoid of colour.  The books arrived and Hat unpacked them with glee. We have dipped into them since. On recce. Navigating our way around the lessons in advance of the real thing: when ‘term’ begins, when her older siblings return to ‘proper’ school. We have made lists of the things we need to buy: poster paints, pencils, pads of white paper.

But Hat’s ‘school’ will not be limited to a classroom at home, it will not be rigidly designed around an academic calendar. Her father’s job means extensive travel throughout Tanzania, to remote places on the map hundreds of miles away. His work will take him to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, to the Southern Highlands, to the dry interior around the Ruaha National Park. Must Hat and I remain here in solitary splendour whilst he explores a country Hat has lived in all her life just so that we can do ‘school’?

No. I don’t believe so. Hat doesn’t either. Already she is demanding her own map of the country so that,”I can tick off all the places I’ve been to”. Must we stay home alone and dryly turn the pages of geography books when we could be living the geography, absorbing the history, collecting treasures for a nature table, taking pictures for a collage? No.

Why? Because life’s too short to lose opportunities for adventure. And I want Hat to understand that as much as I want her to understand fractions and the rudiments of grammer. More, maybe. Because she’s going to spend so much of her life incarcerated in educational institutions, what’s a year or two picking up knowledge in the bush? Because I really, really want my children to know that sometimes bending rules, sometimes not conforming, is more rewarding than being straight-jacketed into Normal. Education is imperative. I’m not convinced school is.

I know that the opportunity to have Hat at home with me this year, next, even the one after, on the pretext of teaching her is a gift. I know that. I just hope that in five or ten or twenty years time, Hat will remember it as one too.


30 Responses to “What is Education?”

  1. mwanafunzi Says:

    I have read your posts with great interest, i have always refrained myself from commenting on some of the topic but this one i have to. I totally agree with you that it may be rewarding not to conform to some sort of normality, but for Hat, home education is not the key for her future, they say you can only learn too much on one place but at school the diversity of students Hat will mingle with will help her to acquire the skills you would not be able to teach. from my point of view you are being naive and over-protective which is natural from martenal point of view. Education is not only books so as school, there is so much one can experience and learn from attending schools or classes that will shape their future. Unless you have everything sorted for Hat, You would want Hat to live the way you see fit, but you should also know that every soul is free and will fly on its own will you may confine but sooner or later it will break free. We human have to learn from many, unlike other creatures with their own inprint.

  2. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Mwanafuzi; thanks for reading. And for commenting. But I have to disagree – I don’t intend to teach Hat forever. And I do not think I am being naive; I have weighed the pro’s and con’s of every situation that presented us as family moving to an isolated area: there were many ways to approach it and we felt the solution we reached, after much deliberation and thought and research, worked best for us – as a family. And for Hat, being away at school with little contact with her family and being – for now – close to home was her choice, supported, obviously, by her father and I and the teachers at her previous school. I sent a young child to board a long way from home once and it went devastatingly wrong – with that experience and with an understanding of my daughter, I think – on balance – we have made the right decision. For now. She will be our guide. Choices in education will – as my husband sagely commented – always incur questions or outrage in others!

  3. retrocolonialmama Says:

    mem – as you know we are home educating (for the moment) our 2 children aged 8 & 5. We had many ‘well meaning’ people telling us it was the wrong decision. Well boarding school was not an option and there are no schools here on Mafia so, we went ahead, Mads is now working at the level of an 11 year old and Scarlet at the level of an 8 year old. They spend 2 hours a day ‘doing school’ and the remainder, swimming, climbing trees, sailing, cooking and playing with the staff kids. They are happy, well rounded kids able to hold their own in any company.

    I think the only people able to say whether it’s the right decision are those involved i.e you, your other half and hat herself, from my point of view our move and the subsequent result of home educating was the best for us and the girls, in the UK Jon commuted for 4 hours every day and hardly saw them, and they were at the ‘best’ primary school in the area in which we lived and were barely receiving an education.

    Lets face it, we all parent differently, and the ‘mummy mafia’ always know what’s best for everyone else!

  4. Gillian Says:

    Hello Mem,

    I see this time that you will have with Hat as very precious and full of possibilities. There are so many wonderful aspects! As mothers, we don’t usually get ‘time alone’ with later children, so there can be lots of ‘golden moments’ for both of you.

    Here in Australia, homeschooling is very common in remote locations. So, your decision seems fairly normal to me. Besides, I have a horror of sending young children off to boarding school!

    I’m so glad you’ve got good internet connections – even if it has meant a tangle of wires and blinking boxes. You and Hat might like to check out my blog about the number of countries in Africa – it has a couple of interactive games that help you (her) learn and practice the countries and their locations.


    BTW. What DOES Mr Mem do? I had pictured him taking a managerial role on a farm of some sort. Now I wonder whether he works for the govt, an NGO or a mine?

  5. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    retro-c-mama; thank you. and of course you are right. and i feel much better when I hear this from mamas, liks you, who are homeschooling. In the end the only people in this equation whose opinion counts are those involved, me and mine, you and yours. But it always helps to talk to others who are doing the same and happily; I look forward to pep talks and picking your brains! x

  6. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Gillian – first of all thank you for continued reading and support of this blog. I enjoy your regular comments very much. Of course,the Australian’s practically invented home school didn’t they? didn’t you pioneer that whole bush radio school scenario? As a child on a farm in Kenya I did Postal Primary with my mum around the dining table. Stupidly I nagged for my own peer group and was finally dispatched to boarding school where I suffered debilitating pangs of homesickness, ghastly. Thank you for the link, I am going to look at that right now with little Miss Hat. Mr Mem works – deep breath as I say this for anticipated hate mail – in tobacco; he supports 55,000 smallholder farmers in their growing programs.

  7. Roberta Says:

    I applaud your decision. If I’d had the opportunity, I too would have homeschooled. I’m afraid I was one of “those” mothers who did not have the patience for it. I was one of those mothers that was at the school every day volunteering with this and that, but I left the actual “teaching” to the professionals.

    I am sure it will be a wonderful experience for both of you!

  8. The Good Woman Says:

    Hi Mem. Big decision – not lightly taken. Honestly, I don’t feel I have the right to an opinion as I know neither you nor Hat. But I do think that nature of the child needs to be considered in these situations and I really admire you for letting your children have a strong voice in the decisions that effect them.

    Where we seem to be in complete agreement is with the notion that school is just a subset of education (will you be covering sets and subsets in your curriculum?). I hope that, whatever the future holds for my Good Man and I, and whatever schooling choices are made, we will always take primary reponsibility for Bambi’s education.

    Good luck and happy travels.

  9. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Roberta – thank you. I hope I’m up to the challenge. Main priority is not to let Hat down – to make it fun and rewarding so that learning always will be. No matter where it takes place.

  10. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Good Woman. Thanks for that. Yes, every child and every family and every situation vastly different. In the end we just do the best we can at what we think best. I think that’s all we’re expected to do. Previous bitter experience taught me that just because something works for everybody elses kids, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for yours. Good luck with whatever you choose to do for Bambi. So long as kids are happy, I think everything else pretty much falls into place?

  11. Gillian Says:

    Hi Mem,

    You’ll find masses of resource material online. Here’s a link to Australia’s School of the Air in Alice Springs, it includes links to other Schools of the Air in Australia. All are run by State Education Depts.

    Do you have internet capacity to do video Skype? My daughter lives in Exeter and we love to phone her online using Skype – the main expense is bandwidth. If you have this capacity, you’d find you could connect up with lots of other homeschooling families. The Australian homeschools seem to use this now, whereas they started out with two-way radios that were pedal powered — many remote stations didn’t have electricity.

    Here’s Megan in Cairns, QLD who homeschools her son.

    Good lord! you might have to start another blog!

    (tobacco… “gulp”… gotta do what you gotta do, eh?)

  12. Gillian Says:

    school of the air…


  13. Phillida Says:

    Hi Mem,
    I think you summed it up – a gift – a gift for Hat and you. Having home schooled my mob of 3 for the last four years, I entirely agree with you. We are enrolled with the Australian system and our teacher has told me a few times that she firmly believes that the best education takes place outside of the classroom.
    I, too, get asked about the social aspect all the time. The thing that I find interesting though is that of all the kids I meet, the ones that are often the most socially comfortable are the ones who are home schooled. I’m too polite to point this out!
    Somehow when we step out of the norm, it challenges people and makes them feel uncomfortable.
    All the very best with the home schooling and sounds like you, Mr Mem and Hat will have many wonderful adventures…there is nothing like sharing real adventures with your kids…Have a ball, all of you!

  14. Carolyn Says:

    Well done for making such a hard decision and standing by it. This is obviously the right one at the moment, and anyone who says otherwise obviously knows neither you nor your children. Children, and Hat especially, are particularly reslilient creatures and thrive in all sorts of environments.

    My parents took the hard decision to send me to boarding school. From this I realised that it is for some people and not for others. I applaud your family for recognising this – too many don’t.

    Enjoy the time that you have schooling her – you’ll have heaps of laughs and create some wonderful and precious memories.

  15. sarabethjones Says:

    It is strange how the subject of homeschooling can seem to set people off, isn’t it? I almost spit out my drink when I saw this post – it is always amazing to me as I read your blog, happening all the way across the world, where so much is so different, that so much can be JUST the same. I live in the southern US (not exactly well known for our educational systems) and have three kids in public school. A good friendwith kids the same age homeschools, though, and loves to tell me all the things people say to her about it.

    Can’t imagine doing it myself, but when she explains her reasons, I totally get it. I love what The Good Woman says above, that whatever our official educational choices are, that we as parents would take the final responsibility for educating…

    Thanks so much for writing – I really enjoy the reading.

  16. Primal Sneeze Says:

    No ‘gulp’ on the tobacco thing. I doubt if the smallholders even know about the bad press and if they did, and had a viable alternative, they would be growing something else.

    I have friends who have been sailing the world for 18 years now. Their daughter was a babe in arms when they began. Obviously, she was home-schooled. Or boat-schooled if you wish. She has been accepted to university and is taking a 6 month preparation course to get her used to the ways of academia. A more rounded young lady I have never met. She can hold her own on any topic and in any company.

  17. Summer Says:

    I can’t even tell you how much I agree with your sentiments. I applaud you for giving Hat a say. I think that is the key, seeing and listening to who your child really is and facilitating the best situation for that child within reason (Home schooling is definitely within reason in my book). We live in a country where home schooling is definitely becoming more the norm. I haven’t received much criticism at all when I voice my opinion amongst parent’s with kids in public school, on the contrary if I were to even mention boarding school I’m sure there would be an outcry. Funny how different cultures come to accept different situations as ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’ for the child. I for one am all for treating your child like the individual they are and really examining what is best for your child not all children at random! As for the social aspect I believe that is entirely possible without formal education. My husband was home schooled many years ago (on and off he did attend public school for a few years in elementary and opted out of remaining in it when given the choice) He has definitely had no struggle as an adult with socialization, holds a good job and graduated with distinction from his college, was accepted and attended grad school (dropping out to spend more time with our little (surprise!) daughter) Now his three younger sisters are home schooling (age10, 12 and 13) and they all chose this over the public school option. I on the other hand was a combo of public and private schools…I was bored out of my mind and barely passed, not due to lack of intelligence just lack of challenge.
    Good luck in your endeavor, with the attitude you have and the obvious thought that has been put into your decision you are sure to have success whatever that may look like. I look forward to hearing about it via your blog…:)

  18. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Phillida, I agree – people are unnerved by those a little out of step. But then especially important they don’t criticize. You can only criticize what you know when you do.

  19. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Carolyn – thank you. You’re right: this is the right decision. For Now. It mighn’t always be. I think realistic expectations are important in this scenario. I hope it’ll be as precious for Hat as it will be for her dad and I.

  20. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    sarabethjones – that’s the odd thing though, isn’t it, the mummy mafia – as retrocolonialmama so aptly calls the global band of mothers – can make its presence felt everywhere, from you in the States to me in deepest darkest Africa. Thanks for encouraging. And for reading.

  21. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Primal Sneeze – you’re quite right – and pragmatic – about the smallholders; they need to earn a buck. That simple. Thank very much for the tale of boat-schooled daughter of friends, it was inspiring and encouraging. And what fabulous stories she’s going to have … 18 years of sailing the world. Don’t think any number of hours in a classroom could yield anything like as much.

  22. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Summer. Thanks. I made mistakes with my son, I thought I ought to do what everybody else was doing and send him boarding. Only one way to skin a cat and all that. I was wrong. Horribly. It was a sad and dificult time for him until we effected change. I learned from his experience to take the cue from my kids. I think he knows that; he read this post and was sweetly, but profoundly and positively, in favour of Hat being homeschooled. That meant a lot. Thank you for reading. And I’ll relate our own ”classroom” antics as we go …

  23. Kathleen Says:

    Homeschooling is a wonderful decision. Traveling will enhance not only her education but she will learn patience, understand the rudiments of travel, and learn how to socialize in other cultures with other people. What more could you ask for?

  24. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thanks Kathleen. Espeically for your words about travel; I’d only thought about the ”educational” benefit, but you’re right, travel will open up a whole new host of stuff for her to ”learn” from. Patience will be a good one: there will be hours in cars, planes and airports … so long as she has her books and her knitting she’ll be fine. So will I. For I will have her company.

  25. kifimbocheza Says:

    right decision…….

  26. Patsycake Says:

    I must start with my appreciation of your writing. I found you while researching Tanzania last May while my 19 y.o. daughter Becca was in Moshi volunteering with Cross-Cultural Solutions. You bring to life the people and country that she came to love during her brief stay.

    I find myself returning to your pages to read your latest adventure and am constantly recomending you to others! You are a breath of fresh air!

    I homeschooled my two for their first few years (I too am in the SE USA). When I had to return to work outside the home, I was fortunate to find a wonderful private day school which continued to inspire them rather than force conformity. My 23 y.o. son Salem is currently in Japan teaching high school English. He spent a semester at Oxford during college days. They both picked up the socializaion skills quite well, I’d say!

    Keep up the great parenting and great writing! You have another loyal reader in Atlanta, GA! Peter Mayle and his Provence tales made a go of it – hope your get picked up by a wise publisher!

  27. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    kifimbocheza – thank you. succint and supportive!

  28. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Patsycake. First of all thank you for your own story of homeschooling and for support. I am so glad Becca enjoyed Moshi; it’s where my big children are off to board in – sob,sob – ten days time. Thank you for your very kind words about my writing. I love writing a blog, it takes me outside of my tiny world and puts me in touch with people everywhere – like you, in Atlanta. That’s dead cool!

  29. Pig in the kitchen Says:

    I think it sounds fab…and so much more meaningful because Hat is a willing participant. And you fully believe in what you plan to do…so few teachers still fully believe in what they are doing. Lots of luck and I am so jealous of Hat’s upcoming trips in Tanzania!

  30. Iota Says:

    Good for you, good for you, good for you. And well done Hat for being so involved in the process.

    Here, I have been finding out that home-schooling is much more widespread than in the UK. Makes us seem rather sheep-like. There is also something called home-unschooling (yes, really), which I don’t know very much about, but I think takes the view that education is much bigger than a curriculum, and that the child will thrive best if learning is entirely child-led and investigation-led, and no structured learning/teaching is involved. Don’t quote me on that, though. I think your mix sounds ideal – some focused learning, and plenty of other “life” stuff.

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